Album of the Week, February 15: Put Your Back N 2 It by Perfume Genius

PerfumeGeniusBackN2ItMike Hadreas  spent a few years in New York, then moved in with his mother in the Seattle suburb of Everett, WA. Processing the amazing but often overwhelming experience of the Big Apple, he used the relative isolation to write poems and music. Much of this work arose from his life as an openly gay man who grew up in a time of great progress and vicious backlash. Blending his personal experiences and observations with a strong desire for a world based on hope, openness, and support, he created spare, poignant songs, often accompanied by charming and frank videos. After building a following on MySpace — where he was known as Perfume Genius — he landed a recording deal. His debut album, Learning, featured his fragile songs and bold honesty, sung in an almost hesitant voice reminiscent of early Neil Young. After months of touring and honing his craft, he released an amazing second album, enhancing his early strengths with his growing confidence and skill.

Title Put Your Back N 2 It
Act Perfume Genius
Label Matador Release Date February 21, 2012
Producer not credited
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. AWOL Marine
  2. Normal Song
  3. No Tear
  4. 17
  5. Take Me Home
  6. Dirge
  7. Dark Parts
  8. All Waters
  9. Hood
  10. Put Your Back N 2 It
  11. Floating Spit
  12. Sister Song

From the first notes, its clear that Put Your Back N 2 It is the work of a much more mature artist. While Learning was smart, funny, tragic, and honest, it both benefited and suffered from the fragility and sparseness of the songs. Hadreas presents a far more confident and diverse palette for his sophomore effort without sacrificing any of the honesty and simplicity that make his songs so enduring.

AWOL Marine is a bare fragment of a song, a lovely piano figure and a haunting snippet of lyric. The music is richer and more immediate than Learning, and Hadreas’ vocals are stronger and more varied. Normal Song opens with a strong invocation, “hold my hand,” and offers a secular prayer for love and support while celebrating the strength of the human spirit. Quiet, haunting, and moving, it sets the tone for the album perfectly.

No Tears is a bold experiment. One part is a typically moving Hadreas vocal with piano; the other is a strong percussive figure with a highly treated vocal. The two blend to acknowledge loss and pain while refusing to give in. It’s a smart, potent song that shows how Hadreas has grown without surrendering his fundamental musical vision. On 17, he gives us another stark vignette, a quietly moving fragment that blends pain and determination in a very human, compelling way.

Take Me Home is a standout track, a brilliantly constructed song of yearning that is both hopeful and cautious. It shows off a far more powerful vocal as well, with a resonant higher register that propels the story. It’s a beautifully haunting pop song with a strong heart beating in the darkness. On Dirge, Hadreas creates a musical backdrop for words from Edna St. Vincent Millay. The merger works well, providing a strong centerpiece for the disc.  Things pick up from there with the urgent Dark Parts, a song inspired by abuse his mother suffered as a child. With a bold piano base and a stark, moving vocal, it’s another perfect blend of the worse parts of humanity and our ability to rise above them.

All Waters is a frank meditation on homophobia, a contemplation of the risks some couples take with public honesty and affection. It’s bright and moving, spare but strong. Similar thoughts fill Hood, a look at self doubt and the redemptive power of love. It’s short and sweet, a clever love song sung with yearning. Hadreas fills each note with just the right amount of ache, and the piano provides rising notes of hope at just the right moments.

The title track lays it on the line: “There is love with no hiding.” While it can serve as a general celebration of love and the human spirit, it resonates with a deeper wish for every romance to be given its due. It also draws strength from oppression, giving it a powerful, honest heart. Floating Spit is a strange, almost trip-hop vignette, the most opaque song on the disc. It’s musically compelling and nicely constructed, providing a good segue between the title track and the final coda. Sister Song is sung in absentia, narrated by the recipient of encouragement, offering him safe harbor when he returns home. The conceit works brilliantly, offering the hope and safety that the preceding tracks yearn for, rewarding their determination.

Over the course of twelve songs, Perfume Genius offers a light in the darkness, a hope for the human spirit. The path is winding and sometimes perilous, but in the end the journey is possible — and rewarding. With fragile strength, spare boldness, and beautiful honesty, Mike Hadreas creates one of the finest looks at love and life in the early 21st Century available in music.

About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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